A flag goes home: 'enemies then, friends now'
Relatives of long-dead warriors on opposite sides of one of history's ghastliest battles gathered Saturday at a Beaver County museum for a ceremony of conciliation.
At a short presentation inside the Air Heritage Museum, the granddaughter of a U.S. Marine handed a silk "good luck flag" to the nephew of a Japanese soldier killed in 1945.
Shiro Koga, a 25-year-old who went to war for the emperor in 1943, was one of 20,000 Japanese defenders who died on Iwo Jima 72 years ago this month.
Like all Japanese soldiers, he carried a personalized flag, called hinomaru yosegaki in Japan, inscribed with his name and the good wishes of his friends, co-workers and relatives arrayed around an image of the rising sun.
It was a traditional gift for Japanese servicemen before they left for war, and it had special meaning because everyone knew many of these men would not be coming back.
So it was for Koga.
The late Edgar R. Lane, a Marine from New Brighton, took the flag from his body along with a code of conduct booklet and a special bullet, wrapped in cloth, that Koga was to have used to kill himself rather than surrender.
Now Cpl. Lane's granddaughter, Cynthia Kester of Patterson, has returned these war trophies to Koga's grateful family, who will finally have a tangible symbol of his life and sacrifice so long ago.
"There were no remains or mementos," said Eisuke Oniike, 58, Koga's grand-nephew, who traveled from his home in Fukuoka City to attend the ceremony. "I was very surprised to hear that his flag was found in the United States after a long 72 years and was overjoyed. His relatives are waiting for the return of the flag."
Some 50 other people were on hand, including a Japanese TV reporter and many others from the Japanese community in the Pittsburgh region.
"I pray for peace of the world and that no war will occur between the United States and Japan ever again," Oniike said.
Kester, 60, who volunteers at the museum, never really knew her grandfather. But she kept the flag and other items in a plastic bag all these years after receiving them from her mother.
"We were enemies then," she told Oniike as she handed him the flag. "We are friends now."
Earlier this week, she said giving the items back was simply the right thing to do.
"My mother had given me these things a long time ago, and I never knew what they were," she said. "I had this guy's life in my hands."
As World War II fades further into history, returning these flags to the families of the fallen has taken on new meaning.
One organization in Oregon, the Obon Society, exists solely for that purpose. Run by Rex and Keiko Ziak, the nonprofit's mission is to "heal the hearts and broken families that were a result of the war fought between America and Japan."
Relying on a network of scholars and staffers, Obon accepts flags from the families of U.S. servicemen and tracks down the families of the original owners in Japan. It's painstaking detective work because the flags were inscribed in calligraphy by relatives and friends who in most cases are long dead.
"It's really kind of FBI-level work, tracing these back," said Rex Ziak.
Obon has returned about 80 flags so far, organizing a trip last year in which former U.S. servicemen traveled to Japan to present the flags personally. Others have been mailed.
For the Japanese, these flags are more than silk relics. They represent the spirit of a lost soldier, especially since the flags are often the only remains of young men who died on godforsaken islands across the Pacific in fight-to-the-death struggles with the U.S. Marines and Army.
No battle was more savage than Iwo Jima.
The fighting began Feb. 19 and ended March 26, and for the first time in the Pacific war the Americans suffered more dead and wounded than the Japanese.
The American victory cost 25,000 U.S. casualties, including nearly 7,000 killed, most of them Marines. Only 216 Japanese were captured, and most of those were taken only because they had been too wounded to continue fighting.
For many Americans, Iwo loomed as a precursor to how brutal an invasion of the Japanese main islands would be.
For the Japanese, it was another in a long series of desperate island defenses that ended in death for nearly everyone.
More than 1 million Japanese soldiers are still listed as missing in action from the war. It was as if they never existed.
"Nothing came back," Ziak said. "Not a button, not a bone. Nothing."
In many cases, the family received a box containing a letter confirming a soldier's death accompanied by a piece of wood, a pebble, a piece of coral -- something associated with the place where a soldier died. In Shiro Koga's case, his family received a piece of burnt wood from Iwo.
That's why the flags, with their hopeful notes, have significance.
"It's almost like the inside of a yearbook for a graduating senior," Ziak said. "These people have been with this person all of his life and they don't know if they are ever going to see each other again."
Typically the flags contain the soldier's name and characters across the top that say "long life and victory" or words to that effect. A wife might have dipped a child's hand in ink to sign, a sister or mother might have written that that they will take care of the house, a college professor might wish the soldier well. Every now and then there will be a message exhorting the soldier to give the Americans hell or some such patriotic message.
"We have talked to people who have signed these and it's really almost that the spirit of this will provide you with comfort, we're with you in spirit," said Mr. Ziak. "These are the last remaining trace of these soldiers. These flags are viewed as the spirit of that person coming back."
Victor and vanquished
Edgar Lane and Shiro Koga are representatives of another time, victor and vanquished.
But not much is known about either one. No one knows how or when Koga died on Iwo, or what his job was there. Back home he had been a coal miner from Kyushu and a graduate of Manchuria University. Born in 1921, he was the ninth of 10 siblings.
"My mother told me he was smart and excellent," Oniike said.
He left for the war in 1943, trained in Japan and then served in Korea, Manchuria and finally Iwo Jima.
"If he were still alive today, he would be 97 years old," Oniike said.
Cpl. Lane, who died in the 1980s, was born in 1911 and grew up in New Brighton in a family of steelworkers. When the war came he volunteered.
"He was a very proud Marine," Kester said.
On Iwo Jima he was part of the Fifth Marine Division and worked in the motor transport unit. No one knows how he came to have Koga's flag or the other items. Did he kill Koga? Or did he come across his body after a battle and take what he could find, as did most Marines?
He never said. Like almost all World War II vets who saw action, he was silent on his combat experiences.
"I asked my mother if she knew how he got these things," Kester said. "She said no. I could tell it was one of those cases where he didn't talk about the war."
After the war he moved to California, remarried and made his life there. When he came back home, Kester recalls, he was always proper and well-dressed, but she knows little else about him.
The good luck flag he brought home would never have reached Oniike were it not for some happenstance.
Kester was working at Air Heritage one day when Yoshihiro Yoshimura, a Japanese engineer who works in Mount Pleasant, was visiting with his family. She showed him the flag. He knew immediately what it was, did some research and then contacted a TV station in Japan, which did a story on it in December in an effort to find Koga's family.
Oniike happened to see that broadcast. That too was happenstance. He was off work for a holiday when the show aired and happened to see it. Had it been a regular work day, he would have missed it.
"That's my uncle Shiro's flag!" he said and contacted the TV reporter to find out more.
They soon arranged for the trip to the U.S. to get the flag and bring it home.
"It's not just a flag," Yoshimura said. "The soldiers carried them always. By keeping the flag with him, he can feel his family with him."
One twist to this tale is that Kester's mother was originally not keen on giving it up. To her, it was part of her father's identity. Ziak said it is common for the families of U.S. servicemen to be reluctant to part with the flags.
"These are relics that for some families, this is their memory of their father," he said.
Kester understood but felt that the flag belongs to Koga's family. Regardless of the politics of the war, she said he fought for his country and died like so many others.
"And that in my mind is a hero," she said. "We were just explaining it to my mom the other day. Her dad came home. All they got was a piece of wood."